Bitter-sweet entrapment:

A bird’s eye view of some prominent themes in South African literature

Catharina Loader

University of Vienna

Faculty of Philological and Cultural Studies
Institute of European and Comparative Linguistics and Literature Studies
Department of Dutch Studies
Universitätsring 1
A-1010 Vienna

I. Trapped between the Outside and the Inside

The year 1976 marked the acceleration of change in South Africa. Smouldering grievances gradually developed as the relatively ‘peaceful’ revolution entered its final stage. White domination ended in 1994 and for the first time since the Europeans entered the history of South Africa in 1652, a Black man was elected as president. This upheaval inevitably led to retrospection on and evaluation of tradition and history on the one hand and the exploitation of a ‘new beginning’ on the other – with a mixture of positive and negative results.

South African authors were not immune to this process of change. Writing in the South African context can perhaps be explained by calling it an expedition in the spirit of David Livingstone (1813-1873)[1]. During the nineteenth century Livingstone, pioneer of the abolition of the slave trade, spent half of his life in Africa, exploring nearly a third of the continent from its southern tip almost to the equator. After his death the natives buried his heart in the soil of Africa while his lifeless body was sent back to England to be buried in Westminister Abbey.

As Livingstone set out responding to the lure of the unknown, the writer – so to speak – follows the tracks of unknown missionaries, doctors, explorers, scientists and champions of the deprived.

As Livingstone’s heart was buried in the African soil, the writer’s heart must become a part of Africa before he or she can understand its people, their problems, their stories, myths and generally accepted truths. The writer must experience the inherent tensions of Africa’s rhythm, diversity, social and political realities and its myths to be able to inter­twine Africa in a creative representation of this continent to the outside world.

As Livingstone embodies a unique culture from outside Africa, South African literature is known for its multi-cultural character with fiction produced in all eleven official languages.

Apart from the typical African characteristics of the texts one can also monitor the heritage of Europe and in some cases of Asia as well. In the case of South African written literature the influence from outside mostly came from Europe, partly due to the colonial history of the country.

These footsteps from outside should not be denied, but it must be recognised that they were gradually diminished by cultural assimilation from the inside. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the development of the Afrikaans language with its large body of literary works. Despite the fact that Afrikaans is one of the youngest Germanic language in the world, its character was changed and is still shaped and enriched by numerous influences from African and Africanised Asian cultures – ensuring that Afrikaans is as indigenous to South Africa as rooibostee[2].

Although there has always been contact on different levels between South African writers[3], interaction between the different cultural groups increased noticeably since the winds of change began blowing through South Africa. Suddenly marginalized outsiders were ‘visible’ insiders. Brown and Black writers slowly penetrated the carefully guarded Afrikaans ‘White’ canon during the last decades of the previous century.

The first anthology to illustrate a move to incorporate all cultures in South African literature was the Penguin book of South African verse (1969) by Jack Cope and Uys Krige. English, Afrikaans and African verses are presented with the voices of poets like Douglas Livingstone, Dennys Brutus[4], Eugene Marais, Ingrid Jonker, Adam Small and ‘traditional verses’ from Bushman, Hottentot, Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu. Since the 1990’s Afrikaans publishers went out of their way to make up for the neglect of other groups in the past.

The entrapment of isolation, so typical of the South African scene, was effectively broken in the world of literature.

II. Trapped between the Self and the Other

It is difficult to pinpoint the start of any literature, but it is generally accepted that the written tradition of both the Afrikaans and English literatures in South Africa started with diaries, travel reports, journalism, sketches and folk art during the nineteenth century.


In the case of Black literature in South Africa it is important to make the distinction between oral and written forms. Oral forms had existed for centuries when the written forms appeared in the early twentieth century. From 1824 onwards missionaries in the Eastern Cape played a vital role in the development of Black South African literature. So did the first Black newspapers (Imvo Zabantsundu, founded in 1884 and Bantu World, founded in 1932) and magazines like Zonk and Drum after World War II.

When considering a few prominent themes in the development of South African literature, one can sympathise somewhat with H. Taine (1828-1893) who argued that the works of great authors tell us more about a certain time in history and the mentality of a nation than all the facts preserved in archives on that time[5]. Even a brief look at some South African poems, short stories, novels and dramas illustrates clearly how large public events became dramatically alive in the stories. Naturally Taine’s perspective is not the whole answer, since history can only be seen as an intertext in a complex creative process. The overwhelming presence of history in South African literature is nevertheless undeniable and is a phenomenon investigated thoroughly by Van Heerden in his essay on ‘The weight of history’.

The tendency to explore the place and identity of the individual and/or group within a certain historical and multi-cultural sphere is thus unquestionably one of the most dominant underlying themes in the South African literary corpus. The latest dramatic changes in South Africa happened at a time of deconstruction and globalisation. A new appreciation of national traditions became apparent as a reaction to the conformism brought on by the so-called global village phenomenon and remarkable technical developments[6]. Unavoidably these centrifugal and centripetal forces stimulate a back-to-basics process – a process to analyse and rediscover the individual’s inner Self as well as the place of Other people and forces central to human existence. Mass media and the world cannot be ignored, but they function mostly in an ‘ex-centric’ way – as a big circle around the core of small stories and histories of individuals searching for a meaningful life. It is essential for humankind to feel safe and well adjusted to its immediate surroundings before it can venture into a greater world and face the expectations that come with this broadening of horizons, for which more than just a willing mind is necessary.

It is within this process that one of the contributions or functions of the writer is to mine for the core, the origin of humankind. Like the dance of the San people, writing often deals with primeval instincts of humans.[7] It entails a unification of the writer’s Self (his own personal experiences of the reality) and Others, where ‘others’ include the writer’s characters, the neglected individuals, groups in society, and the readers.[8]

The above mentioned interactions are illustrated well in The heart of redness (2000), a novel of Zakes Mda (1948). The book depicts the historical and cultural heritage of the Xhosa people and shows its power in an African community. Mda (a son of Lesotho) combines the complexity of ‘Africanness’ – a fascinating account of history, powerful myth[9] and true-to-life characters within the context of a nineteenth-century world. He shows how the consequences of the old feud between ‘Believers’ and ‘Unbelievers’ still influence the lives of people in an Eastern Cape village, Qolorha, one hundred and fifty years later. He shows how history can act as a constant intertext and how a combination of fact and fiction can mirror the conflicting perspectives of different cultural groups from the Outside as well as from the Inside. But at the end of the creative process it is the eye of the beholder that colours the perception of reality and carries in itself dynamic possibilities.

Since the very beginning of South Africa’s written literary tradition, a striking theme was the dynamic interaction between Black, White and, later, Brown people. These diverse groups were destined to influence each other’s lives and writers investigated this bitter-sweet entrapment from different angles and in different styles.

The dramatic consequences of colonialism where the land of indigenous inhabitants was simply seized by foreign powers, form the background of many texts that recount the mostly bitter experiences ensuing from these encounters.

In the first example of a dramatic monologue in Afrikaans poetry Hoe di Hollanders di Kaap ingeneem het[10] (How the Dutch took the Cape) by S.J. du Toit (1847-1911), an old Griqua tells the story of the Dutch settlement in the Cape. It is clearly Danster’s first encounter with ships and canons. The poem illustrates how the Europeans took advantage of the natives’ naiveté and how the Griqua were deceived, killed and driven back from Table Mountain to the Great River.

Another early example of this theme is to be found in a collection of A century of South African short stories, compiled in 1993 by Trump and Marquard. Here William Charles Scully’s story, ‘Umtagati’(first published in Kafir stories[11] in 1895) illustrates the methods used by colonialists in order to reach their goals. The natives’ belief in magic was for example exploited by the superior scientific knowledge of the governmental official.

With his novel, Mhundi (1930), Solomon (Sol) Tshe­kisho Plaatje (1877-1932)[12] became the first Black writer to describe the fate of the Tswana people during their initial encounters with White people moving northwards. Here he pictures the devastating influence of colonialism on traditional society.

In numerous literary works Africa is seen as an exotic place of adventure – a ‘dark’and dangerous continent where the struggle between chaos (barbarism, wildness) and order (civilisation as known by the colonialists) was a frightening reality for the new settlers in the Cape Colony. It was a continent where places like ‘Monomotapa’ lurked in mystery. For example: In the novels, King Solomon’s mines (1885), Allan Quartermain (1887) and She (1887), Rider Haggard follows the journeys of a fortune hunter through Africa, in search of ancient treasures. In his overview of the South African English literature Thomas Thale[13] rightly stated that in many of these adventurous stories one usually finds that the colonial heroes were romanticised and Black South Africans were often reduced to the role of enemy or servant.

Still unforgettable are the gripping stories of Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) written at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Her best known book is, A story of an African farm (1883), generally considered to be the founding text of South African literature. The narrative gives the reader an insight into the life of Victorian settlers in the rural outposts of the colonies. It tells of the longing to escape from this mystery called Africa, addressing conflicts of race, class and gender before the Anglo-Boer Wars as well as presenting a critical view of Christianity. The short story, ‘Eighteen-ninety-nine’ (1906) for example, illustrates the physical and emotional suffering caused by harsh living conditions, political turmoil and war (in Trump 1993).

An Afrikaans novel by Chris Barnard (born 1939), Boendoe, meaning a place far away from civilization, again involves this aura of mysticism: ‘I know that there is something hidden in the heart of Africa, something that nobody could yet touch.’ (1999: 216). This element of seclusion then turns out to be a dominant theme in the novel – not only as an environmental focus but also as a pointer to how the human spirit motivates action, yet remains a complete mystery.

Fear is a constant theme of many South African books. In the early texts fear is often a combination of the unpredictability of the country and the fundamental failure to fully understand the indigenous inhabitants. This is a topic that is very prominent in Rayda Jacobs’s book, Eyes of the sky (1997), where she tells the story of Twa. In a interview with Manfred Loimeier[14], Jacobs explains the purpose of her book as follows:

‘I wanted to remind the people of South Africa that it is not the Black people who first lived in South Africa but the Bushmen who eventually mingled with the Khoina and the Sonqua to form the Hottentotte or the Khoisan people … (and) … how difficult it was for the Whites when they arrived in the Cape interior. Seen from their perspective it was not easy at all to move in there and to cultivate this barren countryside without knowing what to expect.’

She also wanted to show that the tragic killings during these early years of colonialism were initiated by all groups involved because all felt threatened in one way or another. It is thus a story in search of identity, filled with betrayal, forbidden love, and the coming together of diverse cultures in a hostile land.

The notion of being a stranger in Africa despite the fact that one is from Africa is investigated from many angles by several South African writers. The 1991 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Nadine Gordimer (1923) is one of the writers who still deals with these problems of fear and alienation. In her book The conservationist (1974) concepts such as the possession of land, ownership, the vulnerability of Whites, language, loss and forbidden desire form dominant focus points.

Indigenous oral traditions were greatly ignored throughout the early years of South African literature, a tendency broken by a novel of Thomas Mofolo, born in 1876 in Lesotho. His book, Chaka (completed 1910, published 1925)[15], tells the heroic but tragic legend surrounding this well known king of the Zulus, the Black ‘Napoleon’ of Africa. Chaka dominated the scene during the days of the Difaqane[16] or Mfecane[17]in the nineteenth century, a time of war between the different Black groups in the interior of South Africa. Mofolo became the first African to write a historical novel after he had travelled on a bicycle from one kraal to the next to gather oral traditions woven around Chaka. The king’s physique, his revolutionary war methods, his complex personality and his cruelty towards his enemies and even to his own people transformed him into a mythical figure.

What is known as ‘struggle’-literature started in the first half of the twentieth century, illustrating what Dennis Walder in his study, Post-colonial literatures in English, calls the ‘consciousness-raising function’ or the ‘weapon’ of literature in a situation of political instability (1998: 169). This phenomenon was shared in all forms of literature.

Already in 1916 Plaatje, in Native life in South Africa, criticised the Natives Land Act of 1913 that reserved 90% of the country’s land for the White minorityIn 1930 the Zulu writer, R.R.R. Dhlomo (1901-1971), wrote ‘Murder on the mine dumps’ (Trump 1993), criticising the violence of the unjust political system of the then up and coming National Party (NP)[18] with its policy of Apartheid. This ideology meant forced segregation of different cultural groups based on racial discrimination.[19] In the same year that the NP came to power (1948), Alan Paton (1903-1988) published Cry, the beloved country. He was a White schoolteacher who fixed the world’s attention on the effects of racial prejudice against the Black people of South Africa.

Literary works in the Apartheid era deal with themes like discrimination, alienation, outsiders, fugitives, identity and outlaws. They were written by both outsiders (the victims) as well as by insiders (the privileged). Well-known inside-voices were writers like Charles H. Bosman (1905-1951) and Nadine Gordimer.

Martin Trump describes Bosman, who is known for his Marico[20] stories, as ‘a satirist par excellence” (1993: 11), due to his ability to put the most sacred viewpoints and beliefs of the conservative Afrikaner under a relentless and honest magnifying glass.

Nadine Gordimer’s works[21], from the 1940’s onwards, criticise Apartheid in a wide range of topics. As a White liberal in the elitist English community in South Africa, Gordimer’s work deals with the moral and psychological tensions of her extremely divided country. It investigates the narrow-mindedness of a small-town life, the typical relationship between master and servant, the spiritual and sexual paranoia of colonialism, the shallow liberalism among her privileged White compatriots, cruel racial laws, uprisings in Soweto (a Black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg), materialism weighed up against traditional rituals and mythology, as well as the violence-ridden post-Apartheid society.

The 1940’s also saw the start of missionary-educated Black writers like Henry Dhlomo (1903-1956), younger brother of R.R.R. Dhlomo, who investigates the possibilities of fighting modern problems with traditional wisdom. Indigenous languages and social problems (like urbanisation) were emphasized in works of the likes of B.W. Vilakazi (1906-1947) and Peter Abrahams (1919).

The 1950’s are known for the establishment of front organisations to promote anti-racist movements, a mounting pressure for freedom (as summarised in the Freedom Charter, 1956) and renewed legislation from the government to suppress any resistance. In the Black community the magazine Drum voiced themes of Black critical writers like Henry Nxumalo, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakasa, Can Themba and Mphahlele. According to Thomas Thale, Mphahlele’s oeuvre represents one of the most important views of life experiences and developing views of a politically aware South African[22].

Wilbur Smith published worldwide bestsellers from the early sixties. His narratives are often set against the turmoil of the South African political scene and deals with sex and violence, usually with White heroes.

But even more honesty and drastic change were necessary to prevent massive bloodshed and from the sixties onwards the critical voices of writers against injustice in South African society became especially dominant in all literary genres. They found themselves torn between the Self (own interest) and the Others (neighbours’ interest), confronted with a history of division and entrapped by cultural fragmentation. This bitter process was intensified after the violent riots in Black townships like Sharpeville in 1960 and the unrest of 1976 in Soweto. The mood during these years was hostile and therefore themes of anger and revolt figured strongly in the writings of all the different ethnic groups in the society.

In Afrikaans literature these themes are illustrated in the work of authors like A.P. Brink (1935) and Breyten Breytenbach (1939) with the result that some of their books were banned. Brink’s Looking on darkness (1973) was first banned. Then followed A dry white season (1982). Breytenbach became an exile and was later imprisoned as a traitor.

Stephan Gray (1979: 11) pointed out that approximately half of South African English-language writers of all colours had been expelled over the borders of South Africa into an international diaspora, splitting South African English literature into two groups – insiders and outsiders[23]. This phenomena had the positive result that it kindled a vital creativity revealing the dynamic position of writers in society: despite government censorship against writers opposing Apartheid they believe in the freedom to test the strength of power, to rearrange, to abandon, to criticize, to end old myths and to make a difference by means of the creation and exploration of new traditions and beliefs. Frequently the books of these writers were not available to the South African public. Work of Alex la Guma (1925-1985), for example, were first released in South Africa during the 1990’s, after his death. Guma investigated themes like the life of crime resulting from living in the slum conditions of district Six (A walk in the night, published in1962) and the dedication of the illegal freedom fighter (In the fog of the season’s end, 1972).

The strength of satire was used extensively to ridicule absurdities in society. Some brilliant works of Etienne Leroux (1922-1990) are examples of this bitter-sweet art form. Magersfontein o Magersfontein! (1976) portrays for example the badly organized attempt of a foreign film and television company to re-enact the Battle of Magersfontein as it happened during the Anglo-Boer War on 11 December 1899. Leroux combines tragedy with irony and reveals the absurd connections between historical events and contemporary insights or lack thereof. Stressing discrepancies between what people expected and the actual reality, he drops the mask of illusion and reveals the real facts to illustrate the power of indoctrination and mental blindness induced by fear and self-interest. The book is, in the words of Lord Seldom: ‘a play with irony where the absurd, and satire, and the grotesque, and comedy, and vulgarity, are condensed into one ... (1976: 28) – the tragic truth with the smile of an ironic joke.’ (1976: 27).

In the same way playwrights like Athol Fugard, Adam Small and Bartho Smit tried to shock the predominately White audiences out of their indoctrinated uncritical mentality. In this endeavour they were accompanied by satirists like Pieter Dirk Uys.

Peter Thump called the 1970’s ‘the last tired face of Apartheid’ (1993: 7) where the failure of urban and rural cultures to co-exist becomes more evident and all become victims in the process.

The short story, ‘Life’ (1977),by Bessie Head, illustrates this theme. The action unfolds during 1963 against the background of the so-called independent homelands, a policy of separate development where all Botswana-born citizens had to return to Botswana. Life, the main character in the story, had lived in Johannesburg from her tenth year with little recollection of her earlier days in her native village. When she returns to her birthplace, it looks ‘pathetic in its desolation’(Trump 1993: 271). At the end she is killed, her name a harsh contradiction to reality. The story ends with an ironic reference to the popular song of Jim Reeves during that time: ‘That’s what happens when two worlds collide’ (Trump 1993: 280).

The quest for survival constantly collided with heartless politics and cultural upheaval. Elsa Joubert’s book (1978) tells the gripping story of The journey of Poppie Nongena, born Matati. This novel, based on the true story of Poppie’s life, is also a dramatic account of social injustice and illustrates the traumatic effect of a political system on the daily family existence in the townships. For more than one South African this tale of suffering and endurance became an eye-opener.

These were also the years of the strong rise of the Black Consciousness Movement with Steve Biko (1946-1977) as prominent role player. Poetry and drama became the tools to promote a revival of cultural values and opposition to the government of the day. The works of writers were often performed at political gatherings. Staffrider (first issued in March 1978), is for example a good source of Black literature from this date onwards.[24] English writers who illustrate the dissatisfaction of the society with the status quo were writers like Mongane (Wally) Serote, Sipho Sepamia, Oswald Joseph, Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Christopher van Wyk, Mafika Gwala, Don Mattera. The work of Serote for instance gives an insight into the political world of the 1970’s (To every birth its blood, 1981; Gods of our time, 1999).

During the nineteen-eighties South Africa was crippled by external sanctions and an ever present state of emergency. In 1982 Nadine Gordimer described this period as a time of ‘living in the interregnum’, which refers to the death throes of an old order and the expectation of a new order yet to come. Etienne van Heerden touch the same idea with a quote in Casspirs and campari’s from Time magazine. It says: ‘The shell of an old world cracked, but a new order remained to be built’ (1991: 639).

‘Shell-cracking’ events in South Africa were numerous when related to the great amount of violence in its history: from the fierce colonial wars to the so-called ‘border war’ during the final onslaught against Apartheid, from the riots in the Black townships to the car bombs and sabotage in different parts of the country, from rape to murder. A most disturbing book depicting police violence against a Black policeman is to be found in John Miles’s, Kroniek uit die doofpot (Chronicles of cover-ups) of 1991 where, at the end, all South Africans become the tragic victims of a despotic system and desperate people.

When the African National Congress (ANC) paved its way to take over power in South Africa, Barbara Masekela (former exile, activist and head of the Cultural Department of the ANC in the 1990’s) said in a speech that the South African literature is an ‘unexplored territory’ (Walder 1998: 157)[25]. True, however unexplored not only in the normal sense but also in the sense that the literature of one cultural group is often unknown to the other.

During the last fourteen years this field has been unveiled in many interesting publications. Antjie Krog’s translation of oral and written African poems in Met woorde soos kerse (2002)[26] exemplifies how African writers handled their turbulent history. In her collection Krog presents twenty-four /Xam poems collected by W.H. Bleek (an expert on the language of the San people). With the help of experts on nine other South African languages she co-translated poems from Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, Venda, Tsonga, Northern Sotho, Tswana and Southern Sotho into Afrikaans, shedding light on the influence of oral traditions and literature in those communities. Bushman stories written by Piet van Rooyen seek to do the same and try to uncover which forces interact with and motivate this remarkable people.[27]

African myths fuelling the cultural life of different communities also form an undiscovered area. Recently Russell Kaschula did interesting research at the University of Cape Town on myths and reality in contemporary oral literature of the post-colonial or so-called new South Africa. His article[28] shows the strong connection between politics and poetry as performed by the well-known contemporary imbongi or praise singer[29], Bongani Sithole during the transitional period in South Africa. For example: with the use of comparative biblical metaphors Nelson Mandela is portrayed as a mystical character with power and longevity – a figure larger than life. This contributed to establish Mandela’s authority among all South Africans after his release from prison in 1990.

Upheaval, uncertainty and the disappearance of the ‘old world’ stimulate movement, not only on the outside but also on the inside of the community. Thus migration themes often appear in South African literature. For instance: The shift from rural living to a industrialised society is reflected in ‘Man against himself’(1979) where Joel Matlou tells of the experiences of a Black migrant worker at a platinum mine (Trump 1993: 28ff.). E.M. Macphail writes in ‘Annual migration’(1991) about the annual visit of a White South African to her children living in the USA (Trump 1993: 372ff.). As one can see in the last few chapters of this book, South African citizens and authors living outside of South Africa is still seen as a crude reality.

Africa was irreversibly changed by colonialism, which was a process with far reaching effects on the traditional lives of the inhabitants. This change is today fuelled by globalisation and there is a worldwide concern about the vanishing cultures and languages on the continent.

In South African literature multi-lingual and multi-cultural themes endeavour to unearth a true South African identity that includes issues concerning the cultural traditions of all ethnic and marginalised groups, such as women. Plays performed at the Mark Theatre in Johannesburg are a good example of this phenomenon. In Gcina Mhlophe’s, Have you seen Zandile? (1988) and the township musical Sarafina (opened in South in 1987, with music and lyrics by Mbongeni Ngema and Hugh Masekela) we find themes of oppression, fears, torment, humiliation and questions around the traditional role of women in the African society. Women authors emancipated strongly during the last quarter of the twentieth century and they have exposed the suffering of women (as seen earlier in Poppie Nongena). They questioned the male-dominated tradition in the country and played a significant role in the development of South African literature (illustrated in the articles of Van der Vyver and Jansen in this book).

But gender is only a part of the search to rediscover a lost identity. With the help of gripping characters all ethnic groups also seek an evasive historical identity – each group from a different angle and for different reasons.

In this regard A.H.M. Scholtz (1926) immediately springs to mind. This remarkable man covers undocumented terrain and seeks to create a history, an identity for his neglected people at the age of seventy-seven. In his novel about the little town, Vatmaar (1995), he tells the story of a community of Griquas that is also infiltrated by the Other. In doing so he illustrates irreversible amalgamation of communities in South Africa. The characters are drawn from the old South African way of life and the numerous narratives lay bare many sorts of social prejudices, sometimes from within the community and sometimes from without. This is expanded in his second novel, Afdraai (1998). An Indian voice is Agnes Sam (b.1942). In her South African stories, (1994) Sam digs up another neglected perspective of history.

And what is the situation after 1994? Apartheid was officially beaten but as Walter Sauer points out in his reflections on the New South Africa, its consequences cannot be erased merely by a change of political parties.

In South African literature and culture: The rediscovery of the ordinary (1991) Njabulo Ndebele points at some of the many themes developed during the post-Apartheid era. Not only does one read about the great personalities of the South African scene, but one is invited into the lives of the ‘smaller’ people, the ‘little’ ones – those who never received medals for bravery and whose graves were never decorated. Individual feelings, family relationships and small events conjure up the personalised picture of human experiences in the complex history of South Africa.

Etienne van Heeden convincingly portrays the quiet lifestyle of a typical White dominated South African town with ordinary people doing their daily chores in his novel, The silence of Mario Salviati (2000). The genius of this novel lies in the fact that this little town becomes a cosmos of the whole of South Africa. Moreover, he convincingly links the life stories of his characters to local history. The scope of their experiences explores the correlation between human relationships and socio-political circumstances, no matter how insignificant the people themselves think they are. We read about the expansion into the interior of South Africa, the Anglo-Boer war, the elusive treasure of the legendary Kruger millions, the bloom­ing of the ostrich industry and its later collapse, World War II, race conflicts and the impact of the New South Africa on the community.Personal and collective guilt, generated by the realization that political practices were often corrupt are recurring themes in a great number of literary works. Van Heerden investigates for instance five generations of Stam Abel Moolman’s fam­ily in his novel Toorberg (Mountain of Magic) in the Northwest Cape (1986). The narrative becomes an investigation of the realities of the Apartheid-era in South Africa. It demonstrates the deep divisions between the different racial groups despite blood ties. It is an illustration of distorted pride and lack of forgiveness as well as an exposé of the iron grip of history. The unusual death of Noag du Pisani becomes the symbol of a sacrifice necessary to absolve the Afrikaner of his guilt. The real truth stays elusive despite the efforts of the magistrate to find it.

André Brink’s Duiwelskloof (1998) or ‘Devil’s valley’ investigates the history of a group of lost Voortrekkers[30] who lived for decades in an isolated valley where they grew more and more out of touch with the real world and the progressive, more liberal Afrikaner. This novel, as The silence of Mario Salviati and Toorberg, endeavours to uncover the false myths on which conservative Afrikaners built their way of life.

These books are also examples of typical post-modern views that feature prominently in South African literature since more or less 1990. Here reality is viewed as unrecognisable and truth is accepted as an elusive uncertainty. This style suits the spirit of disillusionment and the growing scepticism that followed the shocking ‘whole truth’ as it crystallised after the fall of Apartheid in the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a body that investigated political crimes committed during the Apartheid era.

Marlene van Niekerk’s (1954) book Triomf seeks motivation for the sentiments of the Nationalist Afrikaner from a totally other point of view. In her novel she relentlessly peels away the layers of pretence inherent to the psyche of the conservative and working class Afrikaner while sumultaneously showing deep understanding for the origins of their typical sentiments. She brilliantly shows the tragedy of the descendants of the unsettled traditional Afrikaner farmers in the cities after the Anglo-Boer Wars. They lived in appalling social conditions and their lack of education left them paralysed to do anything about it. Their sole concern was the notion of ‘us being together’ in a pathetic make-believe-milieu as a safeguard against ‘the other in the rest of the world’. At the end of the book they are left to seek the stars because they are ‘northless’ (1994: 451), with no place farther north to go.

Gone with the twilight: A story of Sophiatown (1987)[31] is concerned with the same ideas, but from a different angle, as Don Mattera (born 1935) tells the story of life in Sophiatown (where he was born) before and during its destruction. This township was declared a White area and its name was changed to Triomf (the setting of Van Niekerk’s book). Mattera, a journalist himself, said in an interview with Manfred Loi­meier[32]:

‘Sophiatown shows what we were, where we came from. It also suggests a little where we ought to go. My new book voices political intrigue, murders by Inkatha[33], murders by the Freedom Movements, bombs. It is a grim book: the actions against the system, the killings, the wars, Black against Black violence that were also stirred up by the police and the military. The lies of the leaders: you shall have homes. Jobs. Terrible disappointments, not only for me, but also for a lot of people. This book’s name is: Land of blood and flames and it is not an easy book.’

As the above quotation clearly demonstrates, one now finds that deep divisions do not only run between White and Black groups in society (as was so strongly emphasised by the Apartheid laws), but evidently also between Black groups themselves as well as between Black and Brown sections of the communities.

This problem lies at the basis of E.K.M. Dido’s third novel, ’n Stringetjie blou krale (2000) meaning ‘a band of blue beads’. Nancy Hendriks is driven by nightmares and realises, after a long journey of denial and rationalisation, that she can only live in peace with herself if she acknowledges the fact that she was born Black and stop trying to be accepted into the Brown community. When she tells her Brown husband that she was actually not Brown but Black, he divorces her on the grounds of his racial dis­regard of the Black race.

Rayda Jacobs said: ‘When you are classified as a Coloured or mixed person, you tend to ask yourself the question: where do I come from, how did I come into being?’[34] The same question is asked by Achmat Dangor’s character, Silas, in Bitter fruit. He refers to the ‘existential dilemma of every bastard in the world’ (2001: 215). Here we see how tight the dilemma of the Brown people is woven into the South African literature.

Bessie Head, faced by the fact that she was an illegitimate mixed-birth, is a prominent woman author. Making her first appearance during the 1960’s, she focuses on the burdens faced by such mixed families.

In Pieternella van die Kaap  (Pieternella from the Cape), written by Dalene Matthee we see how Pieternella, a Hottentot of mixed origin, tries her utmost to see herself as ‘a whole human being, a real person’ (2000: 268) in two different worlds. To whom must she pray? To ‘God our Father”, to ‘Gounja’ or to ‘Tikwa’? (2000: 241).

This leads to another important theme – the vulnerability of humankind as it finds itself at the mercy of circumstances. Like a ship on a stormy ocean humans are humbled by a power greater than their own restricted abilities. They are powerless against heartlessness, constitutional conflict, nature, fate and destiny.

Powerlessness in a context of constitutional conflict and social taboos in a South African context is, for example, well illustrated by William Plomer (1903-1973), a contemporary of Roy Campbell and Laurens van der Post, who caused one of the first shock waves in South African literature with his novel Turbott Wolfe (1926). He tackled the highly sensitive topic of inter-racial love – a theme that occurs frequently in practically every genre of South African literature.

This helplessness of humans is perhaps the reason for the interesting post-modern development of magical realism – a world where the borders between imagination and reality disappear. A world where we read how a woman transforms into a she-goat when the moon is full; how a wanderer brings the darkness of Egypt home: in a matchbox; how a man is flown to heaven by a flock of birds and we meet a girl with four breasts (Duiwelskloof  by A.P. Brink). Time and space are displaced and reality is inexplicably challenged. This is, according to Van Heerden discussion of post modernism and prose, a method to get rid of reality (1997: 261).

Presently one often hears the phrase ‘post-Apartheid’s Renaissance’ – also in regard to South African literature. If one looks at the list of new talent that emerged in recent years (Zakes Mda, Ivan Vladislavic, Lesego Rampolokeng, K. Sello Duiker, Mark Behr, Zoe Wicomb, Johnny Masilela, Mike Nicol and Phaswane Mpe) one is left to contemplate the strong possibility that this phrase is in fact true.

The reality however suggests that out of the scattered ruins of the South African social and political landscape new myths and a new order have yet to grow. To prevent the settling of a collective spirit of pessimism and apathy, the role of South African literature lies in decoding the veiled codes of centuries in order to break down barricades between groups in a period of transition and ambivalence. This would contribute to pave the way to a new understanding of the Self and the Other.

III. Trapped between Letter and Life

Although many writers returned to South Africa after the fall of Apartheid, many writers still live and write abroad. The list is endless – to only name a few: Elisabeth Eybers, J.M. Coet­zee, Maritha van der Vyver, Achmat Dangor, Elleke Boehmer, Zoe Wicomb, Damon Galgut, Zakes Mda, Lewis Nkosi, Denis Hirson, Christopher Hope, Lindiwe Mabuza, Sindiwe Magona, Lindiwe Dovey, Shawn Slovo.

But South Africa is a country that, once discovered, fascinates ‘insiders’ as well as ‘outsiders’. Wherever they are, they seem unable to sever their ties with the country completely. The mystery of Africa compels them to write to their mother or their foster mother: a mother who embraces them and paradoxically pushes them away at the same time. Whatever the case, they are compelled to address a host of issues so that the result ‘ … contents, fills, grants euphoria [in] texts that [sometimes] impose a state of loss, discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories’ (Hawkes 1977: 115).[35]

As depicted in Antjie Krog’s disturbing reports in Country of my skull (1998), tons of political baggage must be sorted out. Fresh answers to old questions must be found. But often we find a certain scepticism within these answers.

The Nobel Laureate for Literature (2003), J.M. Coetzee (born 1940), felt like an outsider ever since he was a child. He presently lives in Australia. He is, perhaps as a result of his childhood, able to portray the countless guises of the concerned outsider in his books. His works emphasize the isolation of his characters who usually only find contentment in nature. They are forced to participate in an alien world against their will. In this world they have to put old traditional truths under a magnifying glass, dissect them to the bone. Waiting for the barbarians shows the confusion in the heart of a official in the grip of colonial powers under threat of a barbaric force. The conclusion of the book points nowhere. The end of the encounter leaves the character with a feeling of stupidity and the wish to go astray – but he is nevertheless forced to stubbornly complete the journey. 

In his first post-Apartheid novel, Disgrace (1999), J.M. Coetzee reflects on common changes in society during the Mandela era (so-called rationalisation, re-organising of universities and technical colleges). It sketches a very cynical view on politics and history: Dawid and his family is brutalised and had to give up everything – physically and mentally. A change of power can do almost nothing to eliminate human suffering – it only offers a few varieties on the usual menu. No matter which party is in power, all of them destroy without mercy and without considering social consequences. They instigate disaster and their actions are bereft of personal concern for the individual, resulting in an ongoing spiral of violence. It comes as no surprise when human and animal characteristics are linked. The narrative suggests the senselessness of resisting injustice. On the other hand the same result is reached when one caves in and apologises. One disaster (tyranny) is simply replaced by another (anarchy). Language as a communication system seems meaningless. Existence hollow. The disarming truth in the works of Coetzee is that characters of all racial groups know about their own and each other’s disgrace. Coetzee asks questions but provides no answers.

The young Damon Galgut, just nominated for the Booker Prize for his novel The good doctor (2003), sees all Whites in South Africa as dislocated and alienated personalities who tend to pull back into their own little personal worlds with the danger of losing sight of overall reality. The narrator in the book just mentioned is perhaps a symbol of this mentality: everything must be fixed and rooted for ever in its place as it always was, while the one day resembles the other. Galgut sees his role as a writer to be somewhat ambiguous: as an outsider he should try and find his way to the inside, but simultaneously endeavour to stay an outsider – a spectator. At the same time he ventures to reach the heart of smaller, isolated groups in order to achieve something great[36]. Perhaps it is possible to be idealistic like the young doctor in this novel who believes that the past can be the past and that a desperate situation can be changed.

Remarkable, however, is the fact that, regardless of the dominant critical approach and the severity of these ‘spring cleaning’ processes after 1994, one often finds a flame of hope – as Achmat Dangor put it in Kafka’s curse: ‘for the beautiful light before the sun came up was long and sharp’ (1997: 221).

Hopefully, South African literature will continue to play a role in creating a meaningful pattern, a clear literary mosaic of letter and life in a society still in the grip of adjustment. This inherent inescapable urge to bring words to life, can positively contribute to the process of breaking down historical-cultural entrapments and discover common ground on the personal as well as socio-political levels. Perhaps one can even find a few real answers. To write, to read and to discuss may be therapeutic after all and contribute to healing. On many different levels it can promote clarity. Charles Dickens already pointed out the advantages of facing the ghosts of the past, present and future. It is possible to connect the Inside with the Outside and the Self with the Other.

[1] Electronic publication:, 2003.

[2] Redbush tea, the beverage made from an indigenous shrub only found in the southern parts of South Africa.

[3]For example in the Congress of South African Writers and in literary magazines.

[4] Later banned by the NP from writing, teaching or publishing, he did hard labour on Robben Island, and after that he lived as an exile in America.

[5] Taine, H., Histoire de la littérature anglaise, p. xxii-xxxi – the father of the naturalistic school; he believed that history is the whole social life of any nation (, 2003).

[6] Kaschula, for example, shows the effect of what he calls ‘global culture’ in connection with oral literature in South Africa. Poetry can, for example, be orally performed and simultaneously translated for a global audience through the oral word. Thereafter it could be downloaded and published in book form. The purchasing of Sithole’s poetry by Microsoft marks the beginning of such a process of technological orality. For more details see the electronic publication: cf. /seminarroom/myth.asp, 2003.

[7] Piet van Rooyen’s stories about the San illustrate, for example, this continuous search to discover what forces interact with and motivate this remarkable people.

[8] Pieterse gives a detailed description of the unification between creator and character in: ‘Bemoeienis met die ander: Boerskrywer en Boesman’, p. 101ff.

[9] Nongqawuse, a young amaXhosa girl, brought a message from the ancestors that the nation should slaughter all the cattle and that the fields should not be cultivated. When the time is ripe, the dead will rise and fill the empty kraals with new cattle.

[10] Brink, A.P., Groot Verseboek, p. 11.

[11]In the 19th century ‘kaffir’ was not regarded by Whites or Blacks as a negative term. Today it should be avoided, since Black Africans prefer the term ‘Black people’ or ‘Blacks’. Cf. footnote below.

[12] He was translator, journalist, editor, author, musician, politician, and community leader.

[13] Electronic publication:, 2003.

[14] Electronic publication: Loimeier, M.,, 2003.

[15] Translated into Afrikaans by Chris Swanepoel in 1974, and in 2000 a German translation was published.

[16]A Sotho word meaning ‘compulsory migration’ or ‘hammering’.

[17] A Nguni word for ‘crushed in a total war’.

[18]After the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 (and especially after the National Party had come to power in 1948) until the fall of Apartheid in 1994, conservative Nationalist governments increasingly based new laws on the principle of race in order to maintain power.

[19] Some writers, like Walder, see Apartheid as just another form of colonialism.

[20] Farming district in the North West Province.

[21] She published her first story when she was fourteen years old: Come again tomorrow. It appeared in the children’s section of the Johannesburg magazine Forum. Then followed 11 novels, more than 200 short stories, critical essays, reviews – writings mostly concerned with the effects of race relations. More information in:, 2003; cf., Walder, op. cit., p. 159ff.

[22] See also the contribution of Johnny Masilela on reading and writing trends among Blacks in South Africa.

[23] Here, we think of writers like Themba (who died in exile), Lewis Nkosi, William Bloke Modisane; Arthur Maimane, Dyke Sentso, James Matthews, Peter Clarke, Richard Rive, Jordan Ngubane, Alex La Guma and Casey Motsisi.

[24] Since 1991 the national journal of COSAW (Congress of National Writers).

[25] We are not returning empty handed – a speech at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa as quoted by Walder and printed in Die Suid-Afrikaan, 28 August 1990, a periodical founded by liberal Afrikaners of the Stellenbosch University in 1984.

[26] In the collection (English title: With words like candles) is for example a word of farewell from President Thabo Mbeki addressed to Nelson Mandela on occasion of his retirement from public life (June 1999).

[27] Die spoorsnyer (The tracker),1994; Agter ‘n eland aan (Following an eland), 2001;Die olifantjagters (The elephant hunters), 1997; Gif (Poison), 2001.

[28] Electronic publication:, 2003.

[29]A praise singer plays an important role in ceremonies of all sorts. He usually dances and sings out the qualities of important persons, leaders.

[30] White farmers on the Cape Colony’s borders who from 1836 onwards moved into the interior of South Africa, established two independent Republics, the South African Republic in the Transvaal (1852) and the Orange Free State (1854). Later they were known as ‘Boers’ (literally ‘Farmers’), a term of respect used on the Continent with overtones connoting courage. However, it gradually became affected by negative political overtones and today sometimes refers to rightwing Afrikaners. More generally, it tends to be used as a derogatory term for all Afrikaners in the same way that ‘kaffirs’ or ‘niggers’ gradually came to be used to denigrate Blacks by English speakers in colonial Africa and the United States. Another derogatory term is ‘Afrikaner tribe’ used in a sweeping and undiscerning way. Ironically, the connotative semantic aspect of such references betrays a eurocentric contempt for tribal society, the rancour of which would perhaps become clear if the Dutch people were, by the same unjustified token, to be described as the ‘Batavian tribe’. Cf. footnote 11 above.

[31] The book is also published under the title: Memory is the weapon.

[32] Electronic publication: http//, 2003.

[33] The strongest Zulu political party in South Africa under leadership of Buthelezi.

[34] An interview in: http//, 2003.

[35] In his book, Structuralism and semiotics Hawkes uses this quotation from Barthes’s book Le Plaisir du Texte (1975) in another context, but the words themselves describe what I mean in my context.

[36] Interview with Galgut by Erik Vissers, SD Letteren, 9 Oktober 2003.


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Internet references

Also published in: Catharina Loader and Helmuth A.Niederle (eds.). 2004. Literature and migration: South AfricaBand 2, Wiener Schriften zur niederländische Sprache und Kultur, pp. 19-44, Wien:  Edition Praesens. For more information: Dr Michael Ritter, Edition preasens (

Gepubliseer in Afrikaans in Europa: Desember 2008.

© Catharina Loader 2001